The Wrong Read – Episode 8: Is DeShaun Watson Better Than Aaron Rodgers?
Welcome to the eighth installment of the “The Wrong Read,” an article series that reflects on recent podcast episodes and follows the rabbit holes they create all the way to the underground rabbit city. There is an introductory piece to this series, but at this point it has almost nothing to do with what I’m writing now. Instead, following his big game (finally), why don’t you take a look at what I wrote about Amari Cooper a couple weeks ago?
On the latest episode of “The Dynast Tradecast,” Eric, Dan, and Nathan brought on George Kritikos (now the only non-RotoViz analyst who’s been featured in this column twice, I should add) to discuss a recent Twitter poll they created, asking dynasty owners whether they would rather have Aaron Rodgers or Deshaun Watson right now. The general consensus among the four of them was they would prefer Rodgers in most cases. Watson would be useful for a dynasty team that’s competing to win this season, but otherwise, Rodgers is the QB to own for the long-term. Dynasty Twitter agreed:
— Eric Burtzlaff (@DynastyTrades) October 17, 2017
One point Eric made on the show is that some regression ought to be expected for Watson. Rookie QBs, he noted, tend to regress as Carson Wentz did last season. Intuitively this makes a lot of sense, as opponents get to see rookies play more often as the season goes on, and they can begin to scheme specifically to stop them. However, thanks to the RotoViz Screener, we have more than intuition to go on here.
Do Rookie QBs Tend to Sustain Their Early-Season Performance?
Using the Screener we can look at every rookie QB season going back to 2000. Since we’re trying to figure out how to value Watson specifically, I queried the first six weeks and the final eleven weeks separately. In a nutshell, I want to know how sustainable the performance we see from rookie QBs over the first six weeks of the season is. I also removed QBs who played fewer than four games in the first six weeks of their rookie seasons, as these tended to be backups who didn’t see much of the field and therefore are not reliable comparisons. I measured performance in fantasy points with four points per touchdown and one point for every 20 passing yards. The results are encouraging for Watson owners:
Early-season performance explains nearly 59 percent of the variance in rest-of-season performance for rookie QBs. Not only that but, on average, rookie QBs tended to improve slightly in the final eleven weeks of the season.
Okay, but Is Watson Really an Average Rookie QB?
Now, we can’t just look at the average rookie QB and see that they tend to improve and leave it at that. You’ll note that the equation in the chart above implies that while rookie QBs who do poorly in the first six weeks will improve, those who play very well (around 16 fantasy points per game or more), will see their fantasy scoring decrease slightly. According to the linear regression above, a QB like Watson, who’s currently averaging 24.5 fantasy points per game, should expect to average only about 22.1 fantasy points per game over the next eleven weeks. That’s still really good, but it shows that some regression toward the mean is likely in store for Watson. Of course, that should come as no surprise, as Watson has drastically outperformed expectations thus far. So Eric is right to say that Watson will probably regress toward the mean as the season goes on. Regression tends to follow all outperformance.
All that said, it’s important to remember that the reason Watson likely has some regression headed his way is because he’s been historically good through six weeks. Only two rookie quarterbacks since 2000 have averaged more fantasy points per game than Watson: Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III. Both, indeed, saw their fantasy scoring decrease slightly for the final eleven weeks of the season. But both maintained an average above 22 fantasy points per game. Only two other rookie QBs have averaged more than 20 points per game over the first six weeks—Andrew Luck and Dak Prescott—and both maintained their 20-point-per-game pace through the end of their rookie seasons. Marcus Mariota fell just short of the 20-point-per-game threshold, averaging just over 19 fantasy points per game through six weeks. But he managed to improve as the season went on, finishing his rookie season by averaging 21.4 fantasy points per game over the final eleven weeks.
The aforementioned Wentz averaged 17.8 fantasy points during the first six weeks of his rookie season, but fell below 15 points per game over the final eleven.1 And Jameis Winston barely missed the 17-point-per-game mark in the first six weeks of his rookie year, before storming back in the final eleven weeks to average 21.2 fantasy points per game. Newton, Luck, Prescott, Mariota, Wentz, and Winston are all among the most valuable dynasty QBs in fantasy football. Griffin has dealt with various injuries throughout his career but has never lived up to the lofty expectations set after his rookie season. And the only rookie QB to average more than 16 points per game through the first six weeks of his rookie season, Geno Smith, was for a long time a RotoViz favorite, but was in general a massive disappointment for his fantasy owners.2 But the point of all this is to say that Watson is in rare company.
That’s Great, but Would You Really Prefer Him Over Rodgers?
One advantage Rodgers has over Watson in dynasty formats is the longer time horizon inherent in the format. Dynasty owners are not as concerned that Rodgers might not play again this (fantasy) season because they know he will likely continue to be one of the best QBs in the league for many more years. Watson’s immediate advantage over Rodgers is that he is healthy, making him much more valuable in redraft than dynasty, relative to Rodgers’ value in each format.
One other advantage Rodgers has over Watson is in the number of observations we have on Rodgers. Kevin Cole has written about the importance of sample size both with regard to evaluating rookie QBs and young NFL QBs. The point of the analysis, for our purposes, is that Rodgers’ numbers are far more reliable than Watson’s. While Watson has been really good early in his career, we can be far more confident that Rodgers will continue to be good than that Watson will. No doubt this is contributing to the poll results.
But at this point I’ve come too far to back off now, so I’m going to go ahead and say that even considering the above paragraph, I’d prefer the Watson side. In part, my opinion is influenced by the results of the poll, which show that most owners would likely give up a little bit more than Watson alone in order to get Rodgers in dynasty.
The other reason for my opinion is that it seems likely Watson’s value will rise in the short term, while Rodgers’ will fall. If Watson does average 22.1 fantasy points per game over the next eleven weeks, he’d finish with 368 total points, which would have made him the QB2 last season (behind Rodgers). Rodgers’ injury has already pushed his value lower, and it will probably continue to do so as he continues to score zero points each week on his owners’ benches. That is to say, at the end of the season, it’s likely you could sell Watson for more than it cost to acquire him. The same is not true for Rodgers.
But even taking value out of the equation, Watson’s side in this debate is appealing. Other rookies to accomplish what he has through the first six weeks of their rookie seasons have turned into perennial top-five QBs. And we’ve seen that early-season performances for rookie QBs are often sustainable. Even though our sample is still pretty small, by now we have enough reasons to think that Watson may be able keep up this level of play for years to come. I want to buy him before that becomes too obvious.